Last week, the University of Minnesota threatened to discipline nine students for taking part in a noisy protest at Coffman student union in March.
Now, more than 20 faculty members are demanding that they, too, be disciplined, in a show of solidarity.
Organizers have been collecting signatures on what they jokingly call an “I’m Spartacus” letter, daring administrators to treat them just like the students who took part in the March 12 demonstration. The students were accused of violating the student code of conduct, and told they could face expulsion or other penalties, for disrupting a ribbon-cutting ceremony on a newly-renovated floor of the student union.
David Pellow, a sociology professor, said he was so indignant about the disciplinary threats that he sent his own letter to U administrators, declaring that he would have taken part in the protest himself, had he known about it. “I would like to be sanctioned as well,” he wrote. “In fact, I demand a sanction.”
Pellow said he was inspired by one of his graduate students, Rahsaan Mahadeo, who decided to come forward when he learned that some of the protesters had received disciplinary letters on April 29. The next day, Mahadeo notified the U that he, too, had taken part in the demonstration and wanted the same treatment as the others.
The university obliged, sending him a disciplinary letter May 2. Ironically, the day before, he was awarded the university’s Outstanding Community Service Award for his volunteer work with inner-city youth groups.
Teri Caraway, an associate professor of political science, said about 20 faculty members have signed an e-mail petition, which she calls “the I am Spartacus letter.” It’s an allusion to a famous scene in the 1960 film “Spartacus,” when a Roman overlord demands to know who in a crowd of slaves is the rebel leader. When Spartacus, played by Kirk Douglas, rises to identify himself, a chorus of other men stand and shout: “I’m Spartacus.”
“We hope that the students will not be punished,” said Caraway. “They were peacefully protesting, and it seems unjust for them to face disciplinary action for doing that.”
Mahadeo, 32, a doctoral candidate in sociology, said he wasn’t trying to start a movement, but saw it as a matter of personal integrity. “I was troubled that I didn’t receive a letter myself,” he said, and would have felt guilty if his friends had faced sanctions. The demonstrators, he noted, were part of a group called Whose Diversity?, which opposed the renovation at Coffman because they felt it shortchanged the minority student groups headquartered there.
Diversity v. discipline
Danita Brown Young, the vice provost and dean of students, admits that “this was a first for us, that we actually had a student contact us and say, ‘Please charge us.’ ” But she said the university is following its procedures, which require it to investigate complaints of student code violations, and that no disciplinary action has been taken at this point.
At the same time, she said that she’s aware that some faculty members have raised concerns. “I think it’s absolutely clear that people have an interest in diversity issues, that they are supportive of students, and they’re trying to understand our process at it relates to the student code of conduct,” she said.
Pellow said that he decided to follow up with his own “discipline me” letter to drive home his objections. “Even though it may come across as sounding like a prank, I wrote it because I take the issue of diversity in higher education and society very seriously,” he said. At the same time, he noted that Mahadeo’s actions were “far gutsier,” than those of any faculty member, because he could face possible sanctions. “As a tenured faculty, I doubt I would face the possibility of expulsion, let’s put it that way.”
Bruce Nestor, a Minneapolis lawyer who’s representing eight of the protesters, said he’s unsure if the faculty letters will have any impact on the cases. But he said they show that the students aren’t alone in objecting to how they were treated. “I think it reflects that people feel that the use of this disciplinary process, to respond to students who are raising issues about how the university is run, isn’t a proper response.”